Last time I said that sacrifice and generosity are Biblical values that are vastly superior to, and more beautiful than, the value of selflessness. Let’s take a closer look at them now.
What is generosity?
Generosity is not the equivalent of selflessness; it is its reverse! The very word, “self-less” implies a focus on having “less” of the self. Selflessness values self-deprivation for its own sake; generosity values the blessing of others for its own sake. Selflessness says that to take away from the self is good, even if it benefits no one. Generosity says that abundance for all is good, even if it takes away from no one. The goal of selflessness is to subtract; the goal of generosity is to add. The goal of selflessness is to take (from the self); the goal of generosity is to give (to all).
What is sacrifice?
At first glance, the word, “sacrifice” is almost identical to the word “selfless”. One dictionary definition says that sacrifice is, “an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy; as in ‘we must all be prepared to make sacrifices.’” This definition makes the giving up of something the focus, and sounds similar to our modern understanding of “selflessness”.
However, this meaning of the English word “sacrifice” is a relatively modern development. The older meaning of the word “sacrifice” meant simply, “sacred rites”. (That’s why “sacrifice” and “sacred” sound so similar.) The modern sense of sacrifice as, “something given up for the sake of another” developed in the late 1500’s.
So when the Bible talks about Old Testament priests making sacrifices, it is telling you that they were performing “sacred rites”. Another word sometimes used instead of “sacrifices” is “offerings.” An Old Testament sacrifice is a gift offered to God; not simply something taken away from the self. And when the New Testament talks about sacrifice, it always does so in direct reference to this Old Testament system. New Testament writers were saying, “just as the priests were giving gifts to God, so you are called to give your life to God, in everything that you do, every day.
But we moderns have lost touch with these meanings! We have a new meaning of the word “sacrifice” that deletes God from the picture altogether. For example, when you want McDonald’s for lunch but your friends want Wendy’s, you say, “Ok, I’ll make the sacrifice and eat at Wendy’s.” When we use the word in this way, we’re not thinking of any kind of “sacred rite” or any gift offered to God. We’re just talking about letting go of our own desires. Even atheists can use the word in this way! (In fact, that very phrase – “let go of your desires” – is something Buddhism (a non-theistic religion) teaches.)
Properly understood, an atheist is incapable of “sacrifice” – not because atheists can’t be nice people, but because the original (and Biblical) definition of the word refers only to “sacred rites”, and gifts made to God!
More on this new understanding of “sacrifice” next time…